Description and Habits

It is difficult to make a clear-cut distinction between rabbits and hares. The animals are so much alike that there has been great confusion in classifying them, and in popular usage many hares are called rabbits, and many rabbits are called hares. Nevertheless, there are certain differences between the two. Rabbits are generally smaller and have shorter ears than hares. Hares are stronger and can leap farther and run faster. Some hares' coats change color in winter, while rabbits stay the same color the year around. Rabbits are born with their eyes closed and without fur; hares are born with their eyes open and with a good coat of fur. The rabbit doe (female) bears her young in a burrow; the hare doe makes a shallow nest on top of the ground, protected by grass or brush. Rabbits give birth to an average of five litters each year, with four to nine young in each litter. Hares have only two or three litters, with four to six young in a litter.

Rabbits and hares are somewhat similar to rodents, but differ from rodents in having two sets of incisors (cutting teeth), one behind the other. Rabbits and hares have long, sensitive ears, cleft upper lips, and short tails. Their hind legs and feet are long, with strong muscles for leaping. The animals will fight, by biting and kicking, only when cornered or to defend their young. Usually they depend on their speed to save them from wolves, wildcats, hawks, owls, and other enemies.

Rabbits and hares eat young green plants in spring and summer, and the bark of trees and shrubs in winter. Some look for food only at night, staying under cover during the day. Care must be taken in handling wild rabbits and hares because many of them have tularemia, a disease that is often fatal to humans.

What Are Those Long Ears For?

The body of a rabbit is much like that of other four-legged animals. Rabbits do have some special features, however.

They often have long, sensitive ears. Many kinds of rabbits use their ears together or one at a time to catch sounds from any direction. The ears also keep the rabbit cool in hot weather by giving off heat.

The long, powerful hind legs are used by a rabbit for hopping. Rabbits also use their powerful back legs for defense, punching with their hind feet.

Rabbits have two pairs of upper incisors (front teeth). One pair is directly behind the other. They use the incisors to gnaw and clip off plants. Then, they chew their food with sideways movements of the lower jaw, which grinds the food and helps wear down the teeth. Their teeth grow all their lives.

How Do Rabbits Communicate?

Rabbits use their bodies to communicate with each other.

For example, many types of rabbits press their ears back when endangered. Holland Lops cannot do that, but they do crouch into as small a ball as possible.

If rabbits are very frightened, they may thump the ground with a back foot to communicate that danger is near. If a rabbit grunts or growls, it is annoyed. In rare instances, it may even attack.

If a rabbit begins running and jumping straight up in the air and twisting, that is a sign of panic. If it screams, a rabbit is very frightened or in pain. Take steps right away to protect the rabbit and make it feel safe.

When a rabbit lies on its side or its belly with its back legs spread out behind it, a rabbit is feeling safe and secure. A contented rabbit might also purr, make clicking sounds, or softly grind its teeth.